The doctors told Dan Zito to go home and die He refused.
Today, his survival story is a miracle, inspiring others to hold onto hope, even in the most dire of conditions.
The day was June 7. Zito was getting ready to go to work as a successful real-estate agent.
He had never struggled with anxiety before, but lately, he’d been having surges of anxious, panicked feelings shoot through his body. Yet nothing specifically stressful was going on in his life. He didn’t see a cause for the panic attacks, so he figured they would soon pass.
This morning, he noticed a strange metallic taste in his mouth, like nothing he’d ever tasted before. His sense of smell seemed off, too. He figured his anxiety had reached a new level, and it was time to see a doctor.
He didn’t want to worry his wife and two sons, ages 9 and 10, though, so he called up his brother and asked if he could join for a trip to the doctor. His brother worked with him, and he outlined a few things his brother could do to help, while he sorted out the anxiety thing.
“I didn’t want to worry her about it. I wasn’t sure what was going on,” Zito says.
Zito headed to the kitchen to tell his wife his plans for the day. But mid-conversation, something happened.
He couldn’t speak. Suddenly, he couldn’t even formulate thoughts. In front of his wife he transformed into a frozen, catatonic statue, and then he fell to the floor and began shaking. There was blood. He had bit his tongue and his eyes rolled in the back of his head. Then, he stopped breathing and turned blue. He had experienced a gran mal seizure and was transported to the nearest hospital by ambulance.
His two boys saw the whole thing.
Over an hour later Zito regained consciousness in the emergency room. Realizing the neurological symptoms the neurology team ordered an MRI. The MRI found a large, deep tumor in his brain — and according to the Neurosurgical team too deep to remove. It looked like Glioblastoma, the most aggressive form of brain cancer. With aggressive treatment the average person with Glioblastoma lives about a year, but very few ever beat it. The few people who live an additional three years are considered “extreme long-term survivors.” And Zito’s condition was far advanced.
Those weird taste and smell sensations turned out to be a series of focal seizures.
The tumor was pressing up against the part of the brain that causes anxiety, which initiated those panicky feelings.
“Neurosurgery said, ‘Go home and die. There’s not much you can do,’” Zito says. “‘Take morphine keep yourself comfortable and try to enjoy the few months you’ve got left.’”
Brain cancers are the No. 1 cancer killers of children, people younger than 20 and people younger than 40. While the condition is rare, when it strikes, it is extremely aggressive and takes a lot of young lives with it. Glioblastoma is the cancer that recently took Joe Biden’s son Beau Biden’s life as well as long time senator Ted Kennedy.
The standard of care for Glioblastoma is surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Radiation plus surgery can typically buy 11 months. Add in chemo and the average is 14 months.
There is only one chemotherapy drug, developed in 1999, Temozolomide, that has an effect on this particular kind of cancer. It is considered an orphan disease, so even though it takes roughly 10,000 young American lives a year, the disease is considered too rare for companies to profit from developing new drugs.
There’s also a special device, Optune, that sends an electrical wave into the brain that keeps the cancerous cells from growing, but many patients don’t have access to the device. In clinical trials the device extended the life expectancy to by 34 percent.
Zito decided not to give up, despite what the doctors said. He decided to fight.
Hope for the future
Zito’s history all came together to give him hope for the future.
Twenty years ago, Zito had become the first recruit of a new kind of football program at the Gilman School in Baltimore. The leader and head coach of the new program was Biff Poggi (today, the associate head coach at Michigan), along with former Baltimore Colts’ players Joe Ehrmann and Stan White. Instead of focusing on wins and losses, they created a program focused on building men for others. Their goal was to build a program where the boys would grow up to be good fathers, husbands and friends and have a commitment to serving others and “loving thy neighbor as thyself.”
Before Zito had even regained consciousness, former teammates or as they call themselves “men built for others” were at his bedside. Doctors from that group were busy communicating with emergency staff to make sure he got the best care possible and was referred to the appropriate hospitals. Poggi had called and made arrangements at a different hospital, which had a high success rate for brain tumor surgeries. He’d tracked down the most renowned brain surgeon in the world, Jon Weingart.
It turned out, Poggi had lost his mother to Glioblastoma. He had been through this before.
Even though the original diagnosis was that the tumor was too deep to remove, the surgery was a surprising success. Zito moved on to oncology.
But the medical oncologist didn’t have good news.
“He told me the same thing: ‘You don’t have much time to live, put your affairs in order. No one survives, try to enjoy what time you have left’” Zito recalls.
Again, his friends from his past rose up to help. One of Biff’s friends, a doctor at Duke, connected him with Henry Friedman, the head of the university’s brain tumor association, who looked through Zito’s records. Instead of a hopeless diagnosis, the new oncologists prescribed a different round of chemo medications.
“He’s the No. 1 researcher in the world in the field of brain tumors,” Zito says. “He’s amazing both in his intelligence and his compassion”
While the original oncology team had more of the negative message — “They told me to give up,” Zito says — Friedman saw something different.
He was encouraged by how well the surgery went and how aggressive the radiation had been, combined with something unique Zito had put together, using his background in health and biology and his connections in the field. He went on a specialized, calorie-restricted, ketogenic diet, along with his chemo and radiation, to keep the inflammation down.
The inflammation can cause serious issues including death so normally, people with Glioblastoma are prescribed a steroid from the beginning to manage the inflammation, but that very steroid (decadron) also makes it harder to kill the cancerous cells. He opted out of the steroid and instead controlled the swelling with diet alone.
When they saw the post radiation MRI the doctors were “blown away” by what they saw, he says.
Whereas a typical brain after 30 rounds of radiation is nearly entirely inflamed, Zito had hardly increased the inflammation between surgery and radiation — an amazing result, Zito says. In addition, two MRIs in a row have shown no visible tumor.
“He [Friedman] called my wife to say I looked like a person who would survive, one of the small percentage who will beat it,” Zito says.
Today, Zito is back to work, alongside his wife, who is also a real estate agent. He handles the phone calls and desk work, while she does the work that requires driving.
His blood panels look healthier, he has lost nearly 100 pounds and is living a much healthier life. He walks every day.
The recovery is long and hard, but there are three reasons why Zito says he has survived since the grand mal seizure and why he will survive the deadliest brain cancer: faith, hope and love.
“Never give up hope. No matter what, hope is a better way to live,” Zito says. “Hope is real.”
Two different times, two different doctors told Zito to go die.
Then he found two other groups of doctors who told him he could live.
“To give up hope before you die is worse than death itself,” Zito says.